There are more than seven billion people in the world—and for most of them life is brutally hard.
Malnutrition kills a third of all children who die each year. Wars cut millions of lives short and ruin countless more.
Even in rich countries, poverty and inequality are growing. Basic services are being slashed. Oppression and division scar society.
It unsurprising that lots of people wish the world was better. So how can we change things?
The root problem is that the world is capitalist. Societies are divided into two main classes—the ruling class bosses who own the workplaces, and the workers, who don’t.
Our rulers say this is natural. They ridicule anyone who questions capitalism.
Yet for most of our history, humans lived in small cooperative groups. There were no classes and no oppression.
Capitalism is very different. It is based on bosses competing with each other to make profits. They do this by employing workers and paying them less than the value of what they produce.
The system is ruthless. Our rulers wage bloody wars for power and resources. They developed racism to justify slavery. And over time they are pushed to squeeze workers ever harder to extract profits.
The problems ordinary people face could be solved if society was organised rationally.
If production was based on meeting need instead of profit everyone in Britain could have a decent home.
Instead, housing is governed by the market. So luxury flats lie empty, greedy landlords charge extortionate rents and families live in cramped, sub?standard homes because they can’t afford better.
There’s enough food to feed everyone in the world several times over. But some people barely eat because they can’t afford to buy it.
Many people want work but can’t find a job. Thousands more are overworked. In a rational, planned society work could be shared out equally.
People could be employed to do the many things that would benefit ordinary people—such as renovating schools, repairing roads or developing clean energy.
But because society is run for profit, things that aren’t profitable don’t get produced, however useful they may be.
So the resources exist to create a much better world. And the group with the power to create it exists too—the working class.
Workers have little say in capitalism, but they are incredibly powerful. Without them the flow of profits, the whole point of the system, dries up.
And workers have the numbers and economic power to overthrow the tiny elite at the top and organise a different kind of society.
Overthrowing rulers might sound far-fetched. But look at recent history. Revolutions threw out rulers in Egypt and Tunisia in 2011. The history of capitalism is full of revolts, uprisings, riots and revolutions.
Throughout the 20th century, revolution swept Russia, Germany, Spain, China, Cuba, Hungary, Iran, Portugal, Indonesia, Romania and Serbia, just to mention a few.
The system pits bosses and workers against each other.
Whether we want struggle to occur or not, there is a constant pressure for it to break out. That’s why the revolutionary Karl Marx described the history of class society as “the history of class struggle”.
Of course struggle doesn’t always end with workers in control. Revolutions are open clashes between classes that open up the possibility of organising the world very differently.
They don’t change everything overnight. And after a revolution, societies can go backwards as well as forwards.
In Russia, a revolution broke out in 1905. It challenged the power of the ruler, the Tsar, as mass strikes spread across the country.
That movement wasn’t enough to beat the state. But in February 1917 a new revolution erupted and got rid of the Tsar.
After that, two organisations held power—workers’ councils, called soviets, and a provisional government that wanted a return to capitalist order. In October that year, a third revolution saw workers take power.
Our rulers, who are destroying the planet, have the nerve to say that ordinary people aren’t capable of running society.
But revolutions unleash the full potential of people that is crushed under capitalism. People transform themselves as they change the world around them. Things change fast.
In Russia illiterate soldiers quickly learned to read and pored over political pamphlets. People gathered for impromptu street meetings to debate the issues of the day.
Ideas that had seemed to make sense in class society, such as religion, began to evaporate.
The US journalist John Reed described a Moscow funeral procession for those killed fighting to defend the revolution.
“As the throng passed the Iberian Chapel, where always before the passerby had crossed himself, they did not seem to notice it,” he wrote.
“I suddenly realised that the devout Russian people no longer needed priests to pray them into heaven.
“On earth they were building a kingdom more bright than any heaven had to offer.”
The prejudice that capitalism encourages falls away in struggle as people realise that their real enemy is the rich.
Anti-semitism was rife in Russia before the revolutions. But workers elected Leon Trotsky, a Jew, as president of the Petrograd soviet.
Revolution dramatically changes the role of women. The historian Harold Isaacs described the impact of revolution in China in 1925-27.
“Revolution brought a thundering series of explosions which left not a limb of the old society intact,” he wrote.
“Bandages were torn from the bound feet of women. Young girls, with bobbed hair and an air of defiant energy, streamed into the countryside to awaken their sex and free it of chains that bore the rust of generations.”
Of course, revolutions aren’t always successful. The ruling class will use the full power of the state—the government, police, army and judiciary—to try and crush them.
The state can be beaten—if workers take it on. But in great uprisings there are always arguments about how to take things forward.
Reformists will say we can win changes while leaving capitalism and its state intact. Some will try to appeal to the “better nature” of our rulers.
History shows that this is a disaster.
Workers in Chile elected a reformist leader, Salvador Allende, in 1970. He promised to make life better for ordinary people. But as the rich conspired against him, Allende tried to placate them.
He brought generals into government and praised the armed forces as “professional and respectful of the constitution and the laws”.
Three years later General Pinochet, with help from the CIA, launched a coup in Chile and took power. The result was mass imprisonment, torture and bloody repression.
A revolution failed to take power in Germany in 1923. Reformist organisations were strong and many workers looked to reformist leaders to take action on their behalf.
The failure left the Russian revolution isolated and helped capitalist powers to crush the new workers’ state. And the depression that hit a few years later saw the growth of fascism.
Revolutionary parties play a decisive role in whether revolutions succeed. Members of revolutionary parties don’t make a revolution on behalf of other workers.
But they provide the organisation that can make struggle stronger and argue for a strategy that can win.
In Egypt, Hosni Mubarak was finally overthrown when strikes broke out.
Revolutionaries had played a key role in shaping these struggles, arguing that organised workers were the force that could win change.
In Russia, the Bolshevik party was rooted enough to win support among wide layers of workers as the revolutions developed.
This meant it could win arguments about the right tactics to lead the struggle to victory.
In Germany, revolutionaries didn’t have independent organisation.
They weren’t strong enough to tackle the reformist leaders who ultimately led the revolution to needless bloody defeat.
Workers have the power to transform the world—but we need to learn from history so we don’t repeat past mistakes.
As capitalism lurches from one crisis to the next, the need for an alternative becomes more urgent by the day.
The Socialist Workers Party is fighting to build the kind of organisation that can make that alternative a reality.
That’s why you should join us today.
- The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels Available at marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1848/communist-manifesto
- Arguments For Revolution—The case for the Socialist Workers Party by Charlie Kimber and Joseph Choonara. Available at Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop, 1 Bloomsbury Street, London WC1B 3QE. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to bookmarksbookshop.co.uk